American heroes head for happy retirement at Chimp Haven August 01, 2005 3:09 PM
By Philip Sherwell
Rita and Teresa served the United States government with distinction for four decades. They played their part in its embryonic space programme and then later made an important contribution to medical research.
Now, as they reach their dotage, America is doing its bit for them. The inseparable duo were the first residents of a thoroughly modern retirement home built deep in the woods of north-western Louisiana.
Rita, 50: cantankerous and maternal
What makes the facility unique is that the taxpayer-funded project is not a nursing home for humans but a "retirement sanctuary" for chimpanzees who have spent their lives toiling away for Uncle Sam. It is called Chimp Haven.
Rita and Teresa have since been joined by nearly 30 more veterans of US government scientific institutions. In all, some 200 retired chimps will be living in this peaceful setting after the facility is completed next year, including some descendants of America's first chimpanzee in space, named Ham, whose flight in 1961 paved the way for the nation's first astronaut, Alan Shepard.
Ham was found to be slightly fatigued and dehydrated but otherwise in good shape after he splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, having reached an altitude of 157 miles and a speed of 5,857mph, during his flight from Cape Canaveral.
"The chimps deserve a good retirement after spending their lives working for man in government research facilities," said Dr Linda Brent, a behavioural primat-ologist and president of Chimp Haven. "It's not only the right thing to do, it's also much less costly than housing them in labs."
Retired chimps can vary in age from their late teens to their forties, depending on the needs of the facility where they worked, and many will live into their fifties or sixties. The animals were previously either kept in the laboratories - at a cost each of about £6,000 a year - or looked after in private sanctuaries.
Rita and Teresa checked in after arriving from the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas. They were earlier part of a breeding programme for Nasa after being captured in Africa in the 1960s.
Unlike some of the younger, captivity-born chimps, they have taken to the great outdoors with enthusiasm. "They've been straight out in the woods, checking out everything," said Dr Brent, who is delighted to be able to watch them adapt to their new habitat after working with the two for 17 years at San Antonio.
"They are great buddies but very different. Teresa is a social butterfly who flits around all the others. Rita can be a bit cantankerous and clearly thinks she's earned the good life in her retirement home," added Dr Brent, who completed her dissertation at the Gombe National Park in Tanzania where Jane Goodall conducted her celebrated research on wild chimps. After a lifetime enclosed in cages and laboratories, some of the chimpanzees find the lure of the wild more intimidating.
Merv, 28, spent his early weeks always looking for human support and was so institutionalised that he hated getting his feet wet. But he is slowly making progress. Most of the new residents have arrived from San Antonio or the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre in Atlanta, Georgia, and their character traits are soon emerging.
Grandpa is a 36-year-old with a touch of arthritis, an easy-going character who has a penchant for female company. And Conan, 19, has emerged as leader of the pack in the largest group of chimps, a dominant character but not a bully, staff have reported.
In one heart-warming moment, Lolita was reunited with her daughter, Sheila, after they spent 15 years in different facilities. "It was very clear that they knew each other," said Linda Koebner, Chimp Haven's vice-president.
To ensure that there will be no patter of small and unwanted padded feet, the males are all given vasectomies before they arrive. There have been no Chimp Haven romances detected yet. "But at least they can go off into the woods together," said Ms Koebner.
The new sleeping quarters have been purpose-built to meet the needs of the residents. Inside, there is running water, mirrors, plenty of windows and a choice of bedding arrangements - hammocks made of old fire hose tubing or hay and blankets. There is heating in winter and a play yard at the back.
The chimps also watch television. Their favourite viewing includes nature programmes, of course, hospital dramas - presumably because they are used to humans in white lab coats - action movies and team sports, such as American football.
As the animals become accustomed to their new environs, however, they seem to lose interest in the small screen as they explore the world outside - a 200-acre site, including five acres of untouched forest with trees towering overhead.
Of approximately 1,500 lab chimps in the US, nearly half are no longer being used for research. By the late 1990s, the burgeoning numbers had forced the government to re-assess how to handle its ageing primate population.
Euthanasia was ruled out and instead the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act (the acronym was inevitable) was passed. This allotted $30 million (£17 million) of federal money, to be matched by equal private funds, to construct Chimp Haven in a wet, lush and warm corner of the Deep South that is not too unlike parts of deepest Africa.
The sanctuary is located in a nature park and the nearest human neighbours are the inmates of a prison. Chimp Haven will celebrate its grand opening in late October, but another $2.5 million in funding must still be raised to complete the next phase. Several options for donations - including a sponsor-a-chimp scheme - are detailed on the www.chimphaven.org website.
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